DULUTH – In an old production brewery a century after Prohibition began, people are once again drinking like it’s 1920 — alcohol-free, and gladly.
Jes Henkes recently launched a weekly sober happy hour at the Yellow Bike coffee shop inside the Fitger’s complex to give nondrinkers and the sober-curious a boozeless bar experience.
Among the offerings are craft nonalcoholic beer — including a new N/A cream ale from Duluth’s Ursa Minor Brewing — plus crafty mocktails, kombucha and other teetotaling temptations.
“There’s a huge demand for this,” Henkes said. “This is a safe, inclusive space.”
There’s never been a better time to be a social nondrinker in the Twin Ports. As more people stop or limit their drinking, whether out of necessity or curiosity, the cocktail and craft beer scene here is keeping up.
Last summer Henkes started Sober Duluth, a Facebook group that today has more than 800 followers, and she quickly found there is a thirst for the kind of community a bar can provide, sans intoxication.
Local breweries are catching on, too.
All breweries and cideries in Duluth have some sort of alcohol-free option, be it root beer, sparkling water, kombucha (which can have trace alcohol) or cold-press coffee. Vikre Distillery crafts up artisan mocktails, too.
At Ursa Minor in Duluth’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, a nonalcoholic version of the Constellation Cream Ale recently joined the tap list. It’s the first N/A beer made locally since the craft brewery boom began.
“There should be something for everybody at our taproom,” said Ursa Minor’s general manager, Andrew Scrignoli. “It’s for that person who for whatever reason would like a nonalcoholic beer and wants to enjoy time at the taproom.”
The brewery sends kegs of the cream ale to ABV Technology in St. Paul, which developed a way to get the alcohol level below 0.5% without destroying the flavor. Other Minnesota breweries, including Bauhaus and Fulton, also work with ABV to offer N/A versions of their beers. The company has been talking to several other Duluth-area breweries as well.
“Beer doesn’t have to have alcohol to be enjoyable,” said Patrick Frimat at ABV. “We know great N/A beer is going to be the standard, and everyone is going to be making one pretty soon.”
The nonalcoholic beer market grew 20 times faster than the traditional beer market in recent years, according to research from GlobalData.
Dave Hoops, owner of Hoops Brewing in Canal Park, said he’s talking with ABV about nonalcoholic versions of his beer, but he hasn’t committed yet. For now he’s fine offering the Heineken 0.0 bottles the taproom offers, which he drinks himself.
“As N/A beer becomes better tasting, people are proudly sitting at a bar and drinking it,” Hoops said. “It’s here to stay and it’s just going to get better and better.”
Scrignoli said they’ve considered getting N/A versions of other Ursa Minor varieties, though less-hoppy beers keep their flavor better. For now it will remain a taproom-only offering — and in growlers at Sober Duluth happy hours.
Henkes plans to expand the weekly happy hours from the existing 5-8 p.m. Thursday slot into the weekend, and she’s also offering a dry-bar-for-hire for events.
“We’ve already got some future events on our calendar and are looking forward to serving delicious mocktails and other N/A options to the community,” she said.
Henkes, 32, first moved to Duluth in 2012 but returned home to Florida in 2017, where — “long story short” — she got sober. She returned to Duluth last summer and started the Sober Duluth groups on Facebook and Instagram, which continue to grow a following.
Eventually, she’d like to open Duluth’s first alcohol-free bar, which she’ll call Clear: A Dry Bar.
“It’s going to happen,” Henkes said, though a location and financing still need to get nailed down.
So far the market test is proving successful, and Henkes thinks Duluth could sustain a booze-free bar that can stay open most days of the week.
“There’s plenty of alcohol-fueled establishments already,” she said. “The response to this has been incredible.”
Brooks Johnson • 218-491-6496